Florida International University

MIAMI — Antonio Rolle is cheering.

It’s recess on Antonio’s first day of Freedom School at the Belafonte Tacolcy Center, and the 13-year-old, seventh grader at Charles R. Drew Middle School is digging it.

“Faaaantaaastic,terrrrifffic, grrreeaat!” he tells a visitor who wonders how he’s doing, repeating a chant Freedom students shout throughout the day.

Antonio’s already shouted, sung, danced, and jumped around at the morning pep rally, known as “Harambee,” which is Swahili for “Let’s come together.”

He’s been to two hours of class where he and other students read part of a story about a man from the projects who became a doctor and, years later, locked his car doors when he drove through the old neighborhood.

He’s joined discussions about personal identity, and the pros and cons of returning to the “hood.”  He’s helped on a skit about alternatives to stealing.

“This is only my first day, but I want to come back next year,” he said.

Antonio’s day is much like other students’ days at 147 Freedom Schools around the country running from June 21 to Aug. 11.

“Every morning, the Freedom School starts with a big party,” said Alison Austin, Tacolcy’s CEO. “It doesn’t matter where the child comes from, if they had a fight, got beat, or are angry they didn’t have breakfast.”

The Freedom Schools were established in 1995 by the Children's Defense Fund, a non-profit organization created by longtime civil-rights activist Marian Wright Edelman to advocate for poor, minority and disabled children.

More than 70,000 students have gone through the tuition-free program which aims to teach the joy of reading and learning, to increase self-esteem, and to encourage community involvement.

They’re named after the Freedom Schools of the civil rights era, a network of alternative schools established mostly in Mississippi during 1964’s “Freedom Summer” to encourage black political participation and voting.

Like the student volunteers who went to Mississippi, teachers at today’s Freedom Schools are mostly college students and recent graduates, ages 18 to 28.

Sonja Heath said she stumbled across the program while looking for summer activities for her daughter, Jada, 6, who attends Charles R. Drew Elementary School.

“It’s great for the kids,” said Heath, who, like other parents, attends weekly meetings that reinforce the program’s message. “She’s opening up, she’s a very quiet girl.”
Washington, D.C., resident Deyon Johnson came to Miami to teach in the program for a second year.

“I like what the Freedom School model stands for." Johnson said, "The idea that that model originates out of the civil rights movement is empowering.”

Johnson, like other Freedom School teachers nationwide, was trained by Children’s Defense Fund leaders at a weeklong, 6 a.m.-to-midnight boot-camp-like seminar in Knoxville, Tenn., in early June.

Tacolcy launched South Florida’s first Freedom School last year; the 2010 program received about $760,000 from The Children’s Trust, Burger King and other donors.  The Children’s Trust also helped fund new schools this year in Homestead, Miramar, Plantation, Florida City, Miami Gardens and Opa-locka.

First-timer Antonio Rolle doesn’t much care about those kinds of details.

Sitting at a table with three friends, he’s listening to music on his MP3 player and looking on while his friend, Ronald Larry, plays video games on a Sony PSP.

He’s just happy to be there.

“The way Ms. Deyon taught, it made it interesting,” he said. “At first, I thought I wasn’t gonna like it. The good thing about it, it’s not school, so you don’t get grades for it.”